Relating, Creating, Transforming

John 11:38-44

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The Binding of Gender
It is not a stretch to claim that religious people, more specifically Western Christians, have had quite a lot of trouble with the idea of gender. We could spend hours discussing the patriarchal history and embedded male dominance of the Christian Church from its inception to the current day. So it only follows that the church has a poor reputation as to how it treats people who identify as transgender or gender fluid. For example, the recent bathroom access controversy has been spurred on by so-called Christian groups. They claim that transgender use of public bathrooms poses a “danger” to others. Of course, this crazy and unfounded fear is based on their idea that God does “make” mistakes, and since they believe that male or female is the only possible gender identification or expression, God must then work only in binaries. Anything outside of that rigid definition cannot be from God. Of course, that is neither Biblical nor consistent with any of Jesus’ teachings. It does continue to confuse and frustrate me how so many Western Christians struggle to accept that God is bigger than us, and therefore, gender is bigger than our limited perspectives.

Of course, a lot of it goes back to the scriptures and how people interpret them. If someone interprets them literally, then they assume that this is the very Word of God, unchanged. But they never do take the Bible literally. Instead, they impose their own agendas and interpretations to fit their own social, political, and moral perspectives. We all do, really. Just for fun, let me say this: if those who claim to take the Bible literally really did, well, surprise!

Jesus would in fact be transgender.

I’ll get to that later, but first we have to recognize, in all seriousness, the great harm that the Christian church has done to transgender people. It goes beyond religious marginalization. The church has bullied trans folk, physically and mentally harmed them, and the church has even killed them. We must admit to this.

According to the Human Rights Campaign and GLADD, in 2015, there were 21 reported murders of transgender people. Already in 2016, there have been 26 reported murders. This is just in the United States alone. This does not take into account those who are bullied and pushed to the brink of suicide, and those who go through with it. Friends, in a time in which hateful rhetoric has amped up against certain people, this should wake us up. We are not talking about gang violence or narco trafficking. We are talking about people being targeted and killed because of their gender identity or expression. The church, all Christians, we are responsible. We cannot allow this to happen. We must take a stand. How, you may ask.

First, maybe some of us need to learn. I know that I admit to knowing very little. I do research, read all the transgender and LGBTQ literature I can get my hands on, I ask questions of my transgender friends, family, and colleagues. I still have a lot to learn. We all do. We must listen. We must learn. To start, here are some terms to be acquainted with:

Terminology

Gender Identity:  a person’s innate, deeply felt sense of being male or female (sometimes even both or neither)

Gender Expression: external, and based on individual and societal conceptions and expectations

Transgender: gender identity does not match their assigned birth sex

Gender Fluid: a more flexible range of expression, with interests and behaviors that may even change from day to day.

Gender Queer: a fluidity of gender expression that is not limiting

By no means an exhaustive or all-encompassing discussion. Please comment and add your thoughts and added insights and knowledge.

Lazarus Bound, We Are All Bound
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This brings us to the Lazarus story. Lazarus, like many transgender friends of ours in this world, was bound. He was bound with mummy-like burial cloths in a cave, a tomb. His friends and family thought he was dead. Jesus came along and told his sister Mary not to be so depressed about it, that Lazarus would live. Mary, in her binary thinking, agreed, but she was thinking about heaven. But Jesus was talking about today. No one understood, but it didn’t matter to Jesus. He went to the cave, a metaphor in the Gospel tradition for transformation or metamorphosis—the caterpillar’s cocoon. Roll away that stone. Lazarus, COME OUT OF THE CAVE! He did come out of the cave, but he was still bound. He was not yet alive, that his, until Jesus spoke the all-important words: Unbind him; let him go. Unbind Lazarus, let him go. Let Lazarus be Lazarus, whoever that may be. Stop limiting his life to your perspectives, or religious beliefs, or social conditioning. Let Lazarus go. Unbind.

The Unbinding, Freeing Jesus
The people were sure they knew who Lazarus was [he was dead to them], but Jesus reminded them of how limited their thinking was—not just about God, but about people, too. Jesus of Nazareth could indeed heal Lazarus, but in order for Lazarus to be truly free, the people had to unbind him.

Honestly, I cannot imagine what transgender people have gone through and go through. I can only listen to their stories and then stand with them. I have never experienced what many of them have—to be criticized, marginalized, or even targeted—not because they committed a crime, or fought in a war against you, or did or said something bad to you. Just because they are. That is brutal. Absolutely devastating. And as Jesus taught, we cannot follow God if we do not stand with those who are truly marginalized. I’m not talking about fake marginalization, I’m talking about people who are clearly targeted and attacked physically, mentally, and spiritually—who are told that their bodies and minds don’t matter. This is beyond wrong. This is evil.

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I told you I’d come back to this business about a transgender Jesus and the Biblical interpretations and so here we go. Suzanne DeWitt Hall, in her article Jesus the First Transgender Man in the Huffington Post, makes an interesting point. For all those who say that transgender people are outside of God’s natural order, let’s apply their so-called literal translations of the Bible. The teachings of the ancient church through today, in general, are that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, flesh-and-blood person. He was born of Miriam [Mary in Greek], so therefore, he was carrying her DNA. Also, the Bible [and Christian church] has taught that Jesus was the new Adam, born of the new Eve. Stay with me here. The Hebrew book of Genesis states that Eve came from Adam’s rib, obviously a male rib, right? And then Eve became female. So she was male, and then was female? Transgender Eve. Oh, and fast forward to Jesus. He was born of Miriam [Mary], but not of Joseph, if you believe in the whole incarnate birth thing. So…Mary was the new Eve, passing on her gender fluid identity to Jesus.

Add to that the creation stories in Genesis which state that God created humans in God’s likeness, male and female. So what is God? Man? Woman? Both? Neither? Uh-huh, you feeling me now?

It’s a joke when Christians try to say that transgender people or those who are gender fluid, are not living as God intends. They make their faulty arguments all the while ignoring the Bible itself. Most people will be quick to tell you that God is not a man, but if so, then why do they continue to insist on calling God “he” and not “she” or neither gender? Look, it’s time for the church, it’s time for Christians to grow up and to actually read the Bible. And it’s time for Christians to embrace people of all gender identifications and expressions as they are.

Take a quick glance at the dictionary definition for the prefix “trans.” It means across, beyond, through, changing thoroughly. Hello, Jesus. Christ crosses all borders and limitations; Christ is beyond the church, beyond religion; Christ is through all and in all; Christ changes people thoroughly and helps them feel alive again. So yes, Jesus was/is trans. Jesus showed us what it can be like to just love and accept people as they are. That kind of relationship is healing. Friends, we must see all of our trans neighbors, friends, family members, and colleagues as we see ourselves. They are beautiful, they are good creations, they are deserving of dignity, respect, and love. No more binding. No more hating. Time for all to be free.
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The Gratefulness Factor

Luke 17:11-19 [NRSV]

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus* was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers* approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

gratefulThe adjective grateful means “thankful.” Gratefulness is an abstract noun formed by adding the suffix -ness to grateful and therefore means the state of being thankful.

Being grateful is a practice that all of us should take seriously. Why? Because gratefulness positively affects our brain function, according to a variety of studies out of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.[1] 

When you are grateful, your brain floods with reward chemicals. When your brain is experiencing gratitude focused on a specific person, i.e. thanking someone for how they have treated you, your brain fills with pleasure chemicals. It’s like eating chocolate—your reward center is activated and so your brain learns to crave that feeling again and again.

Secondly, when you are grateful, your anxiety and depression symptoms may lessen. Research shows that even something simple like keeping a daily gratitude journal has interesting effects on people suffering from anxiety and depression. Those who are anxious sleep better; those who are depressed experience more positive changes; their depressive symptoms rate better on regular mood tests. Gratefulness challenges and upsets the negative thought cycle that can send us into anxiety and depression.

Third, a grateful brain means that your hypothalamus is working better. Gratitude activates the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating all sorts of bodily functions, including hunger, sleep, body temperature, metabolism, and how the body grows. In 2009 studies using MRIs of brains showed that the limbic system [of which the hypothalamus is a part] is activated when we feel gratitude. Gratefulness actually makes our metabolism, hunger and other natural bodily functions work more smoothly.

Furthermore, when you’re grateful, you are more resistant to stress. Your body and brain, in a state of gratefulness, have the ability to bounce back from stressful events like trauma, homelessness, grief, or job loss.

I mentioned earlier that gratefulness helps you sleep better, and this factor contributes to you experiencing more positive emotions overall. When you are grateful, suggest some psychologists, your prefrontal cortex where memories are formed is being trained to retain positive information and reject negative info over time. Makes me think that practicing gratitude just might lead to increased happiness, right?

Absolutely, says David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar who gave a Ted Talk all about the link between gratitude and happiness.

Since 1953, Brother David has been a monk of Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery in New York, dividing his time between hermitic contemplation, writing and lecturing. He’s the co-founder of gratefulness.org, supporting ANG*L (A Network for Grateful Living). I invite you to listen to his Ted Talk or to check out his webpage. Some really good stuff there. To sum up some of his Ted Talk, Mr. Steindl-Rast says that “there are many things for which we cannot be grateful, but there is no moment for which we cannot be grateful, because in every moment, even difficult ones, we have the opportunity to do something.” He makes it clear that gratitude is not realizing that people are worse off than you. So pointing to be people going through tough times or those in horrific situations and feeling lucky or better off is NOT gratefulness. Instead, being grateful requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your life—not comparing your life to another’s. So you can be grateful by appreciating even the simplest things in your life. And you can be grateful when you show appreciation for another person, which is openly expressing gratitude. Finally, Steindl-Rast says that being grateful occurs when something valuable to us is freely given. We do not earn it; rather, it is a gift.

davidgratefulGratefulness is the theme of the Luke story about a Samaritan leper giving thanks. I absolutely love this story, because I think it speaks to people on a universal level and you don’t even have to be a religious person to be blessed by it. There are obvious clues in this story as to how this thankful person was seen by others. He was a leper, so he was untouchable and lived on the margins of society. And, he was a Samaritan, so he was hated for his nationality, ethnicity, and religious tradition. But Jesus of Nazareth didn’t care about those things. Jesus chose to heal this Samaritan leper; he made him clean, along with nine others. The now-healed Samaritan leper realized his new situation. He shouted out with joy. He turned back, approached Jesus, got on his knees, and he said thank you. And then Jesus sent him out—on a new path of gratefulness, a new life.

I think the story speaks for itself. Practicing gratefulness can change our lives for the better. So to close, how can we be grateful like the Samaritan leper?

  1. We have to stop and give full attention to the moment we are in. This means letting go of those future and past-focused thoughts.
  2. We need to look at our lives right now and ask: What am I grateful for in this moment? What opportunity is life presenting me, for which I can be grateful? Keep it simple. Consider your senses, the weather, your ability to learn something, a pet, food, a friend, your body, or nature. Think of each of these things as a gift as opposed to a given.
  3. Practice this gratefulness thinking especially in times of transition or when you feel particularly vulnerable to stress.
  4. For some, keeping a record of gratefulness is a very meaningful and powerful thing. Consider writing down your gratefulness in a gratitude journal.
  5. Lastly, express your gratitude to others. There are many ways to do that: short FB messages, a kind email, a phone call, even a text! Taking a risk to acknowledge someone’s kindness, patience, or character is powerful.

So find ways to start or to keep practicing gratefulness. Make grateful living your way. Become aware that every moment is a gift—you have not earned it or bought it. You don’t know if there will be another moment given to you. So this very moment is an opportunity and gift. What are you grateful for?

[1] Alex Korb Ph.D. PreFrontal Nudity: The Grateful Brain, The neuroscience of giving thanks, Posted Nov 20, 2012.

John 17:20-23; 26

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how we see each other and treat each other.Sure, it is an election year and so that tends to contribute to all the crazies coming out. But it is disturbing just how many people right now [including the Republican candidate for president of the U.S.] say things against certain groups of people simply because of the way they look, what language they speak, and what religion they do or don’t practice. This is unacceptable and dehumanizing. Most people agree that this is true. If so, then there is no way that one can support any politician, leader, or person who participates in such harmful activity, using hate speech and subtle + not-so-subtle prejudice to separate people. This isn’t about “agreeing to disagree”–this is about humanity. We can disagree about politics and social issues, but we must be unified when it comes to our humanity and the humanity of those around us. If we don’t stand up against the hateful rhetoric and prejudice, then we are no better than those who are doing it.

What I’d like to focus on is uniqueness and unity. How do they go together?

The thing is friends, we focus a lot on our differences in this world—what we disagree on, how we look or act differently, the unique ways we dress or eat or talk or vote or live. Differences are good; they really are. We are ALL unique. We think differently and act differently. This is how we are made. Christians in particular have historically focused on difference. If you are not Christian, you are over there. If you are Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Catholic, or Evangelical, or Baptist—you are over there. Denominations, sects, and classifications. And even more so when it comes to those who do not identify as Christians. Are you Muslim? Hindu? Jewish? Jain? Sikh? Buddhist? Baha’i? You are…over there. And if you are agnostic or atheist, well, you are far over there.

But I don’t see this as the vision of Jesus of Nazareth. The person that people based an entire religion on [the most prominent one in the world to this point] did not see difference as a problem or a separation. Oneness was possible for Jesus.

But oneness did not equal sameness.

Jesus felt the presence of the Divine in his life and that presence informed his world view. God, the Abba, was in Jesus. Jesus was in God. And Jesus had a vision that all people, regardless of background and status, could also be one with this God. The “glory” that Jesus speaks of in this John prayer is quite amusing. Glory? I mean, what type of glory did Jesus of Nazareth really experience? Right. Not much. Humiliation? Check. Isolation? Check. Torture and death? Check. So what is this glory that John’s Gospel speaks of? The way I see it [and it’s just my view] is that Jesus’ glory was in realizing that all people were children of God, and that especially included those who were always left on the outside of religious institutions. In Jesus’ time, it was the poor, the widows, the lepers, the tax collectors, the blind, lame, and the Samaritans. In every era the names change, but the issue doesn’t. Did Jesus give the glory he had to others so that they could start more churches, conquer land, and gain power? No. He gave glory to people so they could be one.

Completely one. This oneness is not ignoring difference or uniqueness. This oneness doesn’t mean we have to agree all the time, look the same, pray the same way, eat the same foods, speak the same languages, practice the same religions. This oneness means one thing. That the Divine loves us and loves Jesus. That this is the name of God—Love. And that the love between Jesus and this God is in people. In us.For me, this is our humanity. This is what binds us together.

I was raised a Christian, and so, Communion is a very familiar ritual for me, and for the most part, it has been a positive experience. I was raised in a tradition in which everyone could receive Communion. As a kid, I saw it as a fun event. As a youth, I saw it as a chance to eat and drink with others like a great big family. Then, as a young adult, I saw it as a community-building event in which people of all kinds could do something together and embrace each other as they were. Now, I see it as an agape feast. An invitation to everyone, no matter what, to be at the table, as they are. Bring your uniqueness. Bring your brokenness. Bring your doubt. Bring your enthusiasm. Bring your sadness, your skepticism, your pain. Bring yourself. And you have a place. As. You. Are.

At the end of the day, Communion, as any religious tradition, needs to mean something in our lives. For me, I still embrace Communion because it challenges me to open my table. It moves me to set a place for those who disagree with me, don’t look like me, don’t act like me. And it also reminds me that no matter how I feel or what kind of difficulty I am going through, I also am welcome at this table. I am accepted. I have a place here.

If we come to the table as we are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love.

If we accept and affirm all people as they are, there is healing; there is wholeness; there is love. So friends, be your unique selves and embrace the uniqueness of others. Anyone or anything who tries to make us all the same or disparages certain groups of people because of what they look like, their sexual orientation or gender identification, their religious tradition, nationality, language, etc–anyone or anything that does that, WE HAVE TO TAKE A STAND AND SAY NO. With our honest and bridge-building words, with our kind and grateful actions. May it be so.

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Seeing People

Luke 16:19-31

 Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  ― Confucius

Last time I talked a bit about empathy—how it can be defined and how in most people it is an innate quality, though something we have to cultivate and choose to do. We’ll keep going with that theme, but we are going to explore a side of empathy that, for the sake of this discussion, I’ll call “seeing.”

Now what do I mean by seeing?

Well, seeing a person is seeing them as they are—not judging their experience or trying to talk them out of what they feel, but seeing them as they are—even if accepting them and what they feel makes you uncomfortable. This has been on my mind A LOT recently. Maybe it has for you, too. I mean, if your eyes and ears are open, you have been noticing that there are a ton of people in the United States who are hurting, mourning, suffering. Many of them are Black. Why is this happening? Why were two more Black men’s lives taken away this past week? Their names were Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher. Why? I’m left with that burning question as my heart mourns with Charlotte and Tulsa. What’s going on with us right now?

I certainly don’t have all answers. I certainly do not understand what it’s like to be Black in America. I can only listen to what my Black friends and colleagues say; I can only sit with them in their anger, sadness, and fear. I can only see them. I can only see them. We all should decide to do this—to see them. We should stop trying to tell them how to feel or what to say or how to protest. If Kolin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, wants to take a knee during the national anthem to call attention to this issue, he should do it.

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team’s NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

And if others want to stand with a fist raised, they should do it. They have a right to express what they feel.

And we have responsibility to SEE them.

We can reduce these issues so quickly to be about other things like patriotism and politics, but if you take the time to get the facts straight, and to truly see those who are protesting, you will discover that they are being more “patriotic” than I will ever be. They are protesting because no one is listening and nothing is changing. Kaepernick is meeting with police officers and lawmakers to try to open up a dialogue. We must see this. And we also must see the people of Charlotte, who have been protesting for days now, because they are angry, sad, and scared.

Friends, this isn’t about politics or patriotism. This is about people. We need to see this.

I’ve been asking why there are still far too many white people who refuse to even acknowledge the plight of Black people in the U.S. For a while, I couldn’t make sense of it. Why counteract BlackLivesMatter and the protests that challenge the overuse of police force and the killing of unarmed civilians? Why tweet or post in a scolding, condescending way, telling Black people to settle down, protest a certain way, or to get over it? I couldn’t understand. But I think now I do. Because they are choosing not to see. It would be uncomfortable for them to see, because then they would have to admit the uncomfortable truth that racism is systemic, a real, everyday thing for Black people, and they would have to admit that even police officers can be racist. That’s uncomfortable to admit in the country that many of us claim to be the best country in the world. Isn’t it? So they choose not to see the people in Charlotte and Tulsa and elsewhere.

Just like the rich man refusing to see Lazarus. See, Jesus of Nazareth told lots of stories, and sometimes his stories had really, really strong messages. This is one of those cases. The rich man chose not to see Lazarus and his suffering, even though Lazarus was right on his doorstep. To the rich man, Lazarus should just be quiet and also grateful that he got any scraps at all and that the dog licked his sores. Don’t complain, Lazarus. It would be way to uncomfortable for the rich man to see Lazarus, because then he might have to do something. Help him. Get him to a doctor. Find him some real food. Become his friend.

As everyone does, the two people in this story die. But don’t jump to the conclusion that Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man to hell. That’s not what the story says. Lazarus ends up in the lap of Abraham, akin to the reign of God. The rich man goes to Hades, the idea of Sheol [a place of isolation and desolation even on earth] in Jewish tradition. Now, the ironic twist. For the first time in his life, the rich man acknowledges that Lazarus exists. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue. So, in other words, the rich man only acknowledges Lazarus because he’s now suffering. But it’s not possible. The chasm is too wide between were Lazarus is and where the rich man is.

It’s a harsh story, maybe, but I actually think It’s right on the money. Pun intended. The rich man refused to see Lazarus, but God most certainly did see Lazarus. He is named in the story, and the rich man is not. Now you may hear this today and think: “Well, I’m not the rich man, because I’m not wealthy, I don’t have poor people begging outside my property.” But look closer, please, and see with me.

Yes, any of us who refuses to see people—to accept them as they are and to sit with them in their grief, sadness, anger, or fear—we are the rich man. And we are in torment. Because we lose our God-given humanity when we don’t see people as people.

So see the man who has always identified as a woman, and who is considering surgery and asks you to call her she; see the person who asks you to use non-gender specific pronouns. See the Black woman who is angry over the loss of her son and protesting on the streets, asking for justice. See the Black teen who is scared to say or do anything on the street whenever a police officer is near; see the police officers who are meeting with people like Colin Kaepernick and protecting BlacklivesMatter protestors; see those who suffer and let them make you uncomfortable, because the world can be a painful place to live. It can also be beautiful, and it is beautiful when we truly see each other, when we decide to see the beauty in everyone and see them as equals.

The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me;
My eye and God’s eye are one eye,
One seeing, one knowing, One love.
–Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhar

For…Give.

Luke 16:1-13

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In life, we sometimes encounter confusing and difficult situations. Maybe you are in one of those situations right now. Regardless of the advice that people give you, or conventional wisdom, nothing seems to fit or work. You feel stuck. You are not sure how to move forward. There are no easy answers.

This kind of life narrative needs to be told. We need to share with others [and ourselves] that it’s okay to feel stuck sometimes and that there are situations without answers or solutions. For me, it has been a comfort throughout my life to hear these stories—to discover that many, many others struggle with some of the same things I do, and that I don’t always have to resolve things. This gives me peace.

So maybe that’s why I appreciate the so-called “hard parables” of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels. These parables are the stories that Bible commentators, preachers, and teachers struggle to decipher. These are the parables that they avoid. They don’t have easy answers and they leave you hanging.

The parable of the unjust steward is one of those difficult stories. What does it mean? I don’t know, you tell me! But maybe that’s the beauty of it. It’s left open, and it also seems to contradict some of the things we assume about the Bible, God, and Jesus. So let’s explore a bit and see what happens.

First off, one thing we do know is that this story can be connected to the story of the prodigal son. In both stories, a character squanders the wealth he has been given. Also, the audience would have been Jesus’ followers and the Pharisees. The story is pretty straightforward, as a guy wriggles himself out of trouble by doing something pretty dishonest, but at the same time is shrewd enough to put his boss in a tough situation where he cannot fire him. So basically, the boss chooses to save face and thus “saves” the dishonest, shrewd guy. Yes, this is a parable about money. Duh. It’s Luke. Luke’s Gospel is all about money and maybe that’s why many Western Christians avoid it. Oh snap, did I say that?

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Anyhoo, Many Western Christians know what is called “The Lord’s Prayer.” But do they know that this prayer is about money? Yep. In Luke, the Lord’s Prayer is about forgiving debts—monetary debts. It’s literally saying that we should forgive the money that people owe us, therefore “releasing” them from the debt.

Okay, wow.

In terms of life application, I need to quote Sarah Dylan Breuer,[1] who has a wonderful blog that interprets various “difficult” Gospel texts. Ms. Breuer asserts that most commentators ask the standard questions like “Who is the steward?” and “Who is the master” but she asks a more pointed question: What does the steward actually do, without permission and dishonestly? 

The answer: the steward forgives debts. This is about forgiveness. So what’s the point of this supposedly confusing story?

Just forgive.

Forgive everything, forgive it today, forgive for any reason whatsoever and for no reason at all. Forgive. This applies to you and me, first of all. Forgive yourself. Just forgive yourself. For the things you regret, for the moments when you feel you failed, just forgive yourself. And then forgive others. That doesn’t mean forget any form of abuse or violence of oppression—but forgive means release the debt that exists between you and that person, because it is bringing YOU down. And it means forgive in the community, the nations, the world. Communities and nations should not be in debt to others. This is part of why the world is so screwed up. Forgive.

There is no bad reason to forgive, says the story, because keeping score is meant for sports and not for life. What does keeping score do for us anyway?

So what do you think?

Teaser for next week: Story of Lazarus and the rich man. What is it that causes some people to have someone in their line of vision and yet not really see them?

SHOUT OUT TO CHARLOTTE AND TULSA AND ALL WHO MOURN.

BLACK LIVES MATTER.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/09/proper_20_year_.html

Luke 15:1-10

empathyEmpathy. Do you practice it? Do you experience it with others? What is empathy to you? For me, a simple definition of empathy is when I can imagine what another person is thinking or feeling—not like reading their mind, but just imagining what they think and/or feel, even if I have never experienced such thoughts or feelings myself.

So empathy, in my view, requires imagination.

Currently in this world [and historically too] we as human beings have struggled to empathize with others who are different. Case in point—throughout history certain people have been afraid of other people just because they looked different, ate different foods, wore different clothes [or no clothes], spoke different languages, etc., etc. Today is no different. People fear other people. How else can you explain the horrible attitudes that way too many people have about skin color, that some cannot even say or hear the words BlackLivesMatter? How else can you explain why certain people are afraid of Muslims? Or transgender people? Unfortunately, there are still far too many people in the world who fear other people.

And obviously, this fear leads to scapegoating, oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. After all, if you are not willing to even imagine what another person thinks or feels, how do you expect to see them as humans just like you? So for me, empathy is way more important than all the other things we try to promote so as to create a more just and “equal” society. Those other things aren’t working; can’t you tell? But I think empathy does work. But I need clarify, with the help of psychology and sociology researchers, that there are two kinds of empathy. Affective empathy is when we experience sensations and feelings in response to another’s emotions. It’s like mirroring. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is perspective taking. We have the ability to identify and understand someone else’s emotions.

Empathy, most researchers suggest, is in our DNA. You can observe empathy in animals as well—dogs, primates, etc. Scientists say that empathy is associated with two different pathways in the brain, and they speculate that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, those cells in the brain that fire when we see someone do something much in the same way we would do it. So the research and biological history suggest that empathy is part of our genetic makeup. The problem is not how we are wired. The problem is that we are capable of enhancing or restricting our natural empathetic abilities.[1] So, the difficult thing to face here is that we can choose to empathize with certain people and we can choose NOT to empathize with others.

Disclaimer: I am aware of the reality for certain individuals who are bipolar, autistic, etc. who actually struggle with empathy or who appear to not be able to read another’s emotions at all. There is a lot of research being done on this subject and I by no means am ignoring it. Friends, family members, and colleagues of mine who work/live with children with autism or bipolar disorder experience state that empathy can be taught, though it is more difficult due to difficulty in social communication.Feel free to add your comments below.

All this leads us to two short parables of Jesus of Nazareth, told to a less-than-empathetic crowd of religious elites. Here is the Twitter version of my take:

God looks for those called “lost” by society and simply finds them, no questions asked. Those who make others lost or try to keep them lost are really, truly lost.

The backdrop is that Jesus was being called out by these religious leaders for his tendency to hang out with “sinners” and the “unclean.” You see, for the religious elites, everything boiled down to repentance and redemption, reward and punishment. If you followed the religious rules and remained “clean” in the eyes of God, well, you were okay. If you didn’t, you were outside of God’s realm and pretty much untouchable. Jesus of Nazareth, in this Luke story, seems to be tired of explaining to these religious people why it was so important to see the outcasts and the marginalized as whole human beings who were worthy of love, respect, and community. For Jesus, it was never about repentance or reward and punishment. It was simply about God seeking out and finding those who society ditched. They weren’t lost because they were bad people. They were only lost because society lost them, called them sinners, pushed them away.

And Jesus, in the two parables of the sheep and the coin, refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, namely Ezekiel 34 and the story of the shepherds of Israel who didn’t feed their sheep because they ate all the food themselves. This is a direct shot at the Pharisees and other religious elites who just kept on ignoring the marginalized. They had no imagination. They showed no empathy.

So in the parable, the lost sheep is found. That’s it. That’s the point. The lost sheep is found and welcomed back. No questions asked. Just found. Same with the parable about the lost coin. A woman, the representation of God, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, searches diligently for the lost coin until she spots it. And when she finds it, she celebrates. The coin, like the sheep, is simply lost and then simply found.

And so, in my view, God is an empathetic figure in every way. Neither the shepherd or the woman are concerned with religion, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or any other category we use as an excuse to not empathize. They just search and search for the lost and then find and find. They can imagine what it’s like to feel lost. They can imagine what it’s like to feel shut out or to be called lesser or unclean or weird. So the real question is: will we imagine? Will we empathize?

I think one of the major problems of “religious” people is that we strive to be “good” or “righteous” and so we do “good” or “righteous” things. But we do these things for some kind of religious reward, in many cases, heaven or the afterlife, i.e. God’s favor. This is a problem, because for all this “good” we try to do we don’t do it out of compassion or empathy for someone’s situation. We do things for a reward. We do things to look good or religious or because we believe some god will favor us. Again, this is a problem, because then those “others” we claim to be “helping” are just a means to an end. They are not really part of our social circles or friendships. Why? Because to be considered “good” you have to hang out with others who are “good” or who are doing “good.” This is why you see so many religious fanatics avoid hanging out with certain kinds of people. This is what the Pharisees were doing.

I think striving to be good or righteous is not what we ought to do.

I think we ought to imagine more.

Imagine what it’s like to be Black in America, to feel heavy stares of mistrust, to feel lesser, unheard, and undervalued; imagine what it’s like to be non-binary, to have to explain oneself to co-workers, friends and family members again and again that gender can be fluid, that being oneself is more complicated and nuanced than just man or woman; imagine what it’s like to be Muslim, to hear and see the comments online or in person, claiming that you are a terrorist, shouting that you should go back to wherever you came from; imagine what it’s like to be a person feeling empty, lost, and alone.

What would happen if we stopped trying so hard to be good and we just imagined some else’s situation and empathized? What if we just did that and acted out of compassion?

[1] 2016 The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jeremiah 18:1-4

potter
I don’t know how many of you have ever made pottery or at least watched someone else do it. It is a fascinating process and one that requires great patience, care, and creativity. Also, at least in my case, pottery-making involves A LOT of mistakes and starting over again.

Perhaps this is why many people in the Christian and Jewish traditions embrace a very small portion of an otherwise-ominous book of Hebrew prophetic scripture called Jeremiah. In general, most of the prophetic books are ominous and quite pessimistic, but in all fairness, it makes sense. I mean, consider Jeremiah’s context. These prophetic writings were penned over about four decades of not-so-great times in Israel, starting with the thirteenth year of King Josiah (627 BCE) and finishing with the eleventh year of King Zedekiah (586). In short, Jeremiah experienced the time in Israel just before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem when the Babylonians took over. So obviously, Jeremiah’s words are generally pessimistic.

What is interesting theologically about Jeremiah is the tension between what is called “temple theology” and “covenant theology.” Real quick explanation. Temple theology says: nothing bad will happen to us [in this case, Israel] because Yahweh will protect us and the religious temple of Jerusalem. Covenant theology, on the other hand, says: Yahweh will reward us for our obedience and punish us for disobedience. It is “if-then” philosophy, i.e., if we do this or that, then Yahweh will do this or that.[1] 

This tension, I argue, still exists in modern theology today. Some people [across religious traditions] believe that no matter what, a higher power will save them/bless them/protect them. Many times they believe that because they assume that the higher power accepts their religion as the best one or the truest one. And then contrarily, there are some who believe that this higher power will reward and punish them based on their obedience or disobedience of particular religious rites and rules. Okay, still with me? Do you identify or resonate with either of these viewpoints? Were you raised to believe something similar?

As you think about that, now consider the allegory/image of the potter. Within this image are these two viewpoints, and I will suggest, an alternative viewpoint as well. First, consider what a potter might have been in the time of Jeremiah. Judean ceramic pots, in Jeremiah’s image, would not have been ornate, decorative works of art. These pots would have been functional, made of cheaper materials, and expected to last only a short time. This is why when YHWH calls on the prophet to visit the potter, this is normal and something that he would do quite often. Time for another pot as the last one no longer was usable. But don’t let this fool you. The old pots and the clay, for the potter, are not trash.

The potter is constantly interested in recycling and reuse.

For example, those of you who are potters know that a potter will periodically start a project and then decide that the project is failing and so they will abandon the original idea and start something new. I have heard that potters keep containers of scraps of clay and even pieces of old projects. These discarded pieces can be used or reclaimed as usable clay for new projects. Considering that, this is where I find an alternative to the temple and covenant theology I mentioned early.

I am not one to believe in a Yahweh/God/higher power /presence that punishes and rewards people according to how much they obey or disobey certain rules or moral codes. Neither do I buy the idea that the Divine favors one religion or nation over others, no matter what. For me, it’s all about the potter and the clay—very simple. Potters don’t waste clay. They recycle. They rework the clay. It’s not punishment or reward. It’s not favoritism.

It’s love of the art, the creative spark, and the hope that even discarded pieces from failed projects can be a part of something new, wonderful, and whole.

The discarded clay can be part of a new ceramic vessel and hold something important like wine, water, or oil.

So what do you think? How are we clay? What are your thoughts about this image?

[1] See Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 58.

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